Stern College’s Carmelle Danneman Writes and Directs Award-Winning Film
Carmelle Danneman, a student at Stern College for Women, knew she wanted to be an actress from the age of six, but never pictured herself behind the camera. So when “Send in the Clowns,” the film the 20-year-old singlehandedly wrote, directed, produced, and starred in, won the Audience Choice Award at this year’s Fifty-Four Film Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, no one was more surprised than she was. “A couple of years ago if you told me that I would create my own film, I would have laughed,” said Danneman.
In many ways, however, Danneman has been building up to that moment for most of her life. Taking every opportunity to pursue her passion for the stage within the framework of the religious lifestyle she valued, Danneman acted and performed throughout her elementary and high school years, eventually being cast in “Operation: Candlelight,” a film about a band of unconventional Jewish school girls that becomes a troupe of unlikely heroes. “I learned so much from just being on set and filming a real movie that it opened my eyes to the possibility of creating something of my own one day,” said Danneman.
When she came across a prompt for a Sundance contest highlighting films about economic inequality, Danneman decided to sit down and write something. As she wrote, she realized what she was creating wasn’t about the Sundance prompt—it was the direct result of deeply personal experiences relating to cancer. “My real inspiration for this short film was to make something in memory of my grandmother, who passed away from cancer,” she said. “It was so painful to watch her suffer and know there was nothing I could do to make her better. I had also volunteered as a medical clown during my year in Israel, and I wanted to somehow combine the two ideas to make a film that would bring hope and inspiration to anyone who watched it.”
Danneman’s finished script didn’t match the Sundance criteria, but that didn’t bother her; she was determined to produce it for its own merit. “So many people throughout my life told me I would never make it in this industry without compromising my Jewish beliefs, so I wanted to make this film as professional as possible almost to prove to them that it could be done,” she said. But Danneman had no idea where to begin. She researched each stage of the production process thoroughly, then got to work posting casting notices, searching for film locations, pulling together a crew, and obtaining the film equipment she needed.
“Each time I accomplished one task, something else came up that I needed to figure out,” Danneman said.
To finance the film, she waitressed at a restaurant in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, called Fuego Mundo and started an Indiegogo campaign that raised more than $5,000. In return, she promised that some of the proceeds would go toward the treatment of 6-year-old Katheryn Brenzina, who was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. The donations started pouring in, as did video auditions for parts, and before long, Danneman found herself addressing her very own cast and crew at the film’s first production meeting, held in her childhood home.
“Since I had been doing all the auditions and hiring via email, the production meeting was the first time I got to meet the cast and crewmembers,” said Danneman. “I think it was a bit of a shock for them when they saw that I was the director, because of how young I am.”
They quickly learned, however, that Danneman’s youth made her no less a professional. Her dedicated work ethic and rigorously planned and researched filming schedule meant they were done shooting in just two days. While a film editor worked over the raw footage, Danneman hit a recording studio with a composer to create the movie’s soundtrack. “After a few weeks, I had my first, very own film,” she said. “I have to believe God’s hand was helping me through the entire process.”
The movie’s Audience Choice Award was deeply meaningful to Danneman, who hopes “Send in the Clowns” will bring comfort and hope to viewers, but especially those struggling with an illness. But in her mind, it’s also just the beginning: “I hope to pursue a film career, creating movies that make a difference in the world and impact audiences around the globe.”
A media studies and advertising major, Danneman had originally planned to attend the University of Maryland, but knew Stern College was right for her after a year of religious studies in Israel. “I realized the value of maintaining a religious environment and community, so I came to Stern,” she said. “Here, being a part of the University housing family as a resident advisor has helped me embrace who I am—knowing that everyone has a story and everyone comes from a unique background inspires me to become the Orthodox Jewish filmmaker I want to be.”
If there’s one thing Danneman has learned from her journey, it is the power of that inspiration. “I think attitude definitely impacts a situation,” she said. “If people just remember to stay positive, keep smiling and never give up, it will put them just a little closer to appreciating every moment of life and being able accomplishing what they set their minds to.”